What is Philosophy of Religion?

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Here at PhilosophyOfReligion.org, we have been asking philosophers of religion to say what our field is and does. Our blog is full of fascinating contributions of this kind. We prefer to ask and listen rather than stipulate and define; it’s how we live up to our intention to speak for the entire unruly world of philosophy of religion. Ultimately we hope to analyze the themes in these blog entries and present our findings to you.

So read the blog entries and learn about philosophy of religion from the experts who work in the field.

Wesley J. Wildman is a philosopher of religion working at Boston University, and founder of PhilosophyOfReligion.org.

Bernie Cantens on “What is Philosophy of Religion?”

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Bernie Cantens

Bernie Cantens is Professor and Chair of Philosophy at Moravian University. We invited him to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Philosophy of religion is a branch of philosophy that studies the nature, existence and reality of the supernatural world; its relation to the natural world; and the issues that arise from this relationship. Philosophy of religion’s method, unlike revealed theology, is solely reliant on empirical and rational approaches, as are modeled in other areas of philosophical studies. I can envision at least two ways to approach the task of clarifying what is philosophy of religion: first, we can describe it through its logical structure; second, we can describe it more organically, meaning the natural way philosophers come to address the subject matter. Let me begin with the logical structure.

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Diane Proudfoot on “What is Philosophy of Religion?”

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Diane Proudfoot

Diane Proudfoot is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. We invited her to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Defining philosophy of religion is an impossible task. Philosophy of religion is, to quote Ludwig Wittgenstein’s view of language, like ‘an ancient city: a maze of little streets and squares, of old and new houses, and of houses with additions from various periods; and this surrounded by a multitude of new boroughs’. The ancient quarters include Theravada Buddhism’s account of karma and Tertullian’s elevation of revelation over reason; and the medieval districts include Al-Ghazali on the happiness of faith and Moses Maimonides on the coercion of unbelievers. The new boroughs include Wittgenstein’s own comparison of the believer to ‘a tightrope walker’. Some older streets have fallen out of fashion in favour of new neighbourhoods such as feminist and comparative philosophy of religion. Current inhabitants of the city employ a variety of modern tools, for example hermeneutics and symbolic logic. They appeal to diverse source materials, for example ethnographic studies or linguistic analyses of scripture. They also have diverse aims, for example answering the ‘big’ questions (e.g. ‘Did God create life?’) or mapping similarities between religions in order to promote inter-faith dialogue. The locals include ‘folk’ philosophers (anyone talking about the ‘supernatural’ over coffee or the water-cooler), religious professionals (e.g. clerics practising authorized theology), and academic scholars. Some endorse a particular religion or religious world-view, while others reject the very idea of the supernatural. Definition is not possible: there are no (necessary and sufficient) conditions that define the activity—past, present, and future—of this dynamic city.

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Jacqueline Mariña on “What is Philosophy of Religion?”

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Jacqueline Mariña

Jacqueline Mariña is Professor of Philosophy at Purdue University. We invited her to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Philosophy of religion is a critical inquiry into the most fundamental questions of the meaning of human existence. Because positive historical religions have also engaged these questions, it is at least part of the task of philosophy of religion to critically assess those answers. This means that philosophy of religion must be sharply distinguished from both apologetics and theology. Yet more foundational to philosophy of religion, and critical to the possibility of all critical inquiry within this domain, is the development of categories grounding the manner in which the inquiry is to proceed. The clue to the development of these concepts must lie with our initial definition of the task before us: critical investigation into the meaning of human existence. In what follows I provide a sketch of what I consider the most important methodological and conceptual parameters guiding this investigation.

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Jin Park on “What is Philosophy of Religion?”

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Jin Y. Park

Jin Y. Park is Associate Professor of Philosophy at American University. We invited her to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Philosophy of religion emerged as a field in philosophy at a certain point in the intellectual history of the West. The discipline evolved through the reflections on some of repeated themes including the nature of God and good and evil. If we think about philosophy of religion from a perspective that does not share the concerns that inspired traditional philosophy of religion, we encounter different approaches to philosophy and philosophy of religion. In the East Asian tradition, distinct terms for “philosophy” (哲學, Jap. testugaku; Chi. zhéxué; Kor. ch’ŏrhak) and “religion” (宗教, Jap. shūkyō; Chi. zōngjiào; Kor. chonggyo) were created only in the mid-19th century along with the introduction of Western culture to East Asia.

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Sonia Sikka on “What is Philosophy of Religion?”

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Sonia Sikka

Sonia Sikka is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Ottawa, Canada. We invited her to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Martin Heidegger once wrote that the idea of a “Christian philosophy” is like that of a square circle, because philosophy is essential questioning and faith cannot participate in such questioning. Philosophy asks, “Why is there something rather than nothing,” whereas for faith the question is answered before even being posed: all that is, is created by God, the supreme being. While many theologians would likely want to make more room for reason within their method of inquiry than such a position allows, Heidegger is typical among Western philosophers in drawing a sharp distinction between the realms of faith and philosophy. Faith means acceptance of some doctrines as given, whether these are revealed in a text or communicated by a religious authority, and commitment to living in accordance with these doctrines. Philosophy, by contrast, is supposed to take nothing as given. Although it may address itself sometimes to a topic that is also an object of faith, it relates to that topic in a different way.

In wider contemporary discourse, moreover, “religion” is often taken to be synonymous with faith. After all, the world’s various religions are commonly referred to as “faiths.” On this understanding, “philosophy of religion” becomes rational investigation of views that religions accept on faith. I have never found this approach to be quite satisfactory. I would question the assumption that “faith” necessarily defines religion, and that the content of religion is given through such faith, with philosophy’s task then being to investigate the truth of that content in a fashion that is “external” to religion. In addition, I am troubled by the conception of “religions” as fixed bundles of creed, so that “religious” people must belong to one or another of these.

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Bassam Romaya on “What is Philosophy of Religion?”

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Bassam Romaya

Bassam Romaya is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. We invited him to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

The philosophy of religion might seem to suggest that the subject area deals with a series of philosophical questions about religion, perhaps a “meta-theological” undertaking, a series of cryptic meditations about the nature or origin of some necessary being, mundane ruminations on the problem of evil, an examination of religious experience, analyses on the distinction between faith and reason, and so on. Apart from rudimentary questions, it appears to me that an increasingly widening approach to the various components of philosophy of religion is essential. In reflecting upon the question of meaning, articulating the nature of contemporary philosophy of religion, I have found it helpful to draw upon insights I encountered from students, as a result of undergraduate instruction in courses that intersect the margins of philosophy and religion, courses on world religion, world philosophy, Arabic/Islamic philosophy, mysticism, and the like.

One of the leading questions we consider, usually at the outset of the term, attempts to articulate methodological differences between the two disciplines in order to identify any similarities and differences, and ultimately, ground a workable account that serves as a springboard for our study of the various issues commonly examined in such courses, broadly construed. In appealing to the etymological root of religion from the Latin, religare, “to bind or tie,” in other words, to bind an individual to a relationship of obligation or one of mutual devotion (as Sri Krishna teaches us in the Bhagavad Gita) to a system, higher power/s or entity/ies believed to preside over one’s destiny, we find a lucrative account from which to correlate our understanding of the two domains of inquiry. In this sense, an informed position might mean an attitude toward the human condition, a particular perspective about the world, a generational collection of cultural or moral wisdom, largely depended on being positioned within a narrative or metaphorical story about the origin and purpose of human life. These ideas are fascinatingly close to what is sometimes meant by philosophy, as a repository of some set of principles, a weltanschauung, a value system that holds some special significance for its proponents. I do not contend that philosophy and religion are identical pursuits, nor that their methodologies are merely synonymous. What is particularly significant is the observation that students often have difficulty articulating the differences between the two subjects and their methods, mistakenly believing that philosophy is an entirely secular enterprise whereas religion is that branch of philosophy with a God/s-principle at its core. This insight illuminates the sense in which both philosophy and religion expound value systems, deemed either sacred (religion) or supremely significant (philosophy) for its adherents.

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Dwayne Tunstall on “What is Philosophy of Religion?”

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Dwayne A. Tunstall

Dwayne A. Tunstall is Associate Professor of Philosophy and African/African American Studies at Grand Valley State University. His most recent book is Doing Philosophy Personally: Thinking about Metaphysics, Theism, and Antiblack Racism (Fordham University Press, 2013). We invited him to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

In my more cynical moments, I am tempted to regard philosophy of religion as an ongoing quixotic quest to study an analytically inadequate concept—namely, religion. My cynical self would contend that philosophers of “religion” no longer need to use any substantive concept of religion to study phenomena once classified as religious in nature. Philosophers of “religion” can just study the beliefs held by members of communities traditionally considered to be religious communities. Then, they can construct accounts of those beliefs, alongside accounts of the practices and rituals performed by members of those communities, using knowledge acquired from the most adequate ethnographic studies and historical accounts of those communities. This approach would be a cynical appropriation of G. Scott Davis’s advice to students of comparative religions and ethics in Believing and Acting (Oxford University Press, 2012): “[U]nderstanding religion requires nothing more than the sensitive and imaginative reading of human phenomena informed by the best available ethnography set in the best available historical narrative” (3). Thankfully, I haven’t let those cynical moments determine how I define the field.

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Christine Overall on “What is Philosophy of Religion?”

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Christine Overall

Christine Overall is a Professor of Philosophy and holds a University Research Chair at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario. Her most recent book is Why Have Children? The Ethical Debate (MIT Press, 2012). We invited her to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

As I child I was a bookworm, and the kind of books I loved most were about magic. I started with the endlessly proliferating Oz books, but soon found them facile and implausible. I then devoured Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. I was also captivated by Edwardian novelist E. Nesbit’s books, especially her trilogy, Five Children and It, The Phoenix and the Carpet, and The Amulet. And I immersed myself in the works of twentieth-century American writer Edward Eager, in particular Half Magic, Knight’s Castle, Magic by the Lake, and The Time Garden. These books introduced me to alternate histories, time travel, identity shifts, magical charms, powerful incantations, and supernatural capacities.

Although I knew that these books were not literally true, I fervently hoped that they might turn out to be the fictional representation of a real world of magic—a world where one might buy a magic carpet and be transported through space and time, where one could find a magic coin that granted wishes (or even half-wishes), where an enchanted animal called a Psammead would transform dull normalcy into endless possibilities, and where children could be masters of their fate and independent agents of their own choices.

But the books that enchanted me most were C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. I had been raised as an Anglican. As a child I often prayed for God’s help, although I never received any noticeable response. Thanks to weekly Sunday School classes, which taught me stories and verses from the King James Version of the Bible, I was an avid and unquestioning believer.

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Luo Shirong on “What is Philosophy of Religion?”

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Luo Shirong

Luo Shirong is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Simmons College. We invited him to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

That is a very difficult question because in order to define “philosophy of religion” one needs to be clear about what philosophy and religion are, respectively, and those two terms are notoriously hard to delineate adequately. What is philosophy? This beguilingly simple question seems to require an extended discussion, as evidenced by the monographs written by such philosophers as Martin Heidegger and Gilles Deleuze.

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